His radical non-conformist and individualistic life-style and his writings were considered eccentric, unrealistic and unproductive in a society that valued success, materialism, and expansion.
By Dr. Günter Beck
Historian, American Studies
University of Augsberg
Henry David Thoreau did for a long time not rank among the important figures in American intellectual life – neither literary nor political. His radical non-conformist and individualistic life-style and his writings were considered eccentric, unrealistic and unproductive in a society that valued success, materialism, and expansion. Only much later did he receive due attention, especially as the author of the essay on individual resistance to governmental injustice, Civil Disobedience (originally: Resistance to Civil Government), wielding influence worldwide and at home – the Civil Rights Movement, the protest against the Vietnam-War, and the students’ movements of the late 1960s, to name but a few adherents.
In the mid-1950s his Walden-experiment of practical Transcendentalist self-reliance received attention by the Beat Generation, who longed for independence and self-determination. This cultural strain met in the 1960s and ‘70s with a re-discovery of nature, brought by the awareness of limited natural resources and increasing environmental pollution. Technical and scientific “progress” became suspicious to a counter-culture reacting against dominant patterns of Western society. Then Thoreau’s reputation as a progressive political thinker and an alert social critic grew constantly. He became the role model for the individual’s self-actualization (to borrow Abraham Maslow’s term), the harbinger of a developing ecological consciousness, and the progenitor of the green movement.
The perfunctory perceptions of Thoreau, based on elicit aspects of his work while at the same time neglecting others, created a “popular Thoreau”, erasing the obvious contradictions and inconsistencies in his life and letters, and gave way to a popular version of his ideas and attitudes, that might best be termed “Thoreauvian thought”, which had its heydays in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Due to the backlash of the Reagan-Bush years the influence of Thoreauvian thought on society seems to have diminished – the hippie made way for the yuppie, the students turned away from politics, and environmental protection runs breathlessly miles behind ecocide.
Consequently, the question arises after the influence of Thoreau and Thoreauvian thinking today and their embodiment in the common consciousness of contemporary American society and culture. It seems appropriate to look at popular culture and the way it deals with America’s heritage of critical self-assessment and dissent. The TV-Show The Simpsons might serve as an example to indicate its continuing influence on a larger audience. Its creator, Matt Groening, grew up when politicised counter culture was at its heights in the 1960s and ‘70s and admittedly soaked up its influence for his further career as a cartoonist. I do not want to suggest here that he consciously or on purpose incorporated directly Thoreauvian thought in his show; that cannot be concluded from material present, but it seems to be likely that the general atmosphere that was prevailing during the decade when Thoreau already had become common cultural property, informed also this cartoon.
I will try to demonstrate how an entertaining TV-program incorporates Thoreau in its inter-textual reference system, and how one character of the show, Lisa Simpson, displays attitudes that bear strong resemblance to Thoreauvian individualism, reduced here practically to two modes of expression: “civil disobedience” and “ecological consciousness”.
Postmodernism on Display: Homer Simpson on Walden Pond
Describing the social function and mechanisms of The Simpsons, German editor and critic Diedrich Diederichsen refers to the show as “postmoderne Aufklärung” (“post-modern Enlightenment”) which operates by means of a “laterales Apropos” (“lateral by-the-way”; Diederichsen 18).1 The audience can master the significance and essence of postmodernism by watching the show as it possesses at its basic structure a seemingly aim- and endless process of inter-textual and inter-medial references from all possible fields (pop culture, music, fine arts, literature, politics, history, movies etc.).
Although apparently only at random, it is yet not arbitrary as it belongs to the show’s inherent construction of meaning and is therefore beyond a mere “quotationalism”. The show also self-referentially debates itself and its medium, the TV. Moreover, one of postmodernism’s fundamental narrative and aesthetic strategies is the decoding of these “messages”; understanding intertextuality and seriality as the strategy is paramount for the viewer’s aesthetic pleasure. Discovering the references simultaneously links the viewer to other works of art or aspects of contemporary life and culture, in a process that takes on ludic qualities and requires extensive attention. It demands a very sophisticated viewer who possesses encyclopaedic “cultural” as well as “pop-cultural literacy” (cf. Irwin and Lombardo 87) to grasp critically every nuance of allusion and reference, and to be finally able to read these creatively against the grain. Only if the pre-text is successfully decoded, the new text can receive additional and different meaning – pre-text, text, and reader/viewer enter into a mutually changing relationship.
“The viewer with whom the text has made an implicit ironic agreement, is not the naïve viewer […], but the critical viewer, who appreciates the ironic craft of quotation and who delights in the desired incongruency,” which results in a discursive pattern, the “intertextual dialogue” (Eco 309-10, my translation). For the critical viewer, pre-text and text comment ironically on each other, so he gains even more pleasure from his ability to decode the references of the discourse. I will try to show, how this works with the only marked reference to Thoreau in the program yet.2
In the episode “Marge Gets a Job”, caused by the dire financial needs, Marge Simpson has to support her family by starting to work at the local nuclear power plant. When she tells her slow-witted, egocentric husband Homer about her decision, he does not immediately realize that, despite his wife’s efforts, he himself has to continue working. Instead, he retreats into an escapist daydream:
Marge suggests she could get a job, and Homer considers his dream of living in the woods, keeping a journal of his thoughts.
Homer: “March 15th. I wish I brought a TV, Oh God, how I miss TV!” [My emphasis]
In this dream sequence Homer sits on the shores of a pond, surrounded by squirrels and other cute animals that crawl on and around him. He writes in a journal placed on his knees and utters his “blasphemous” cry for civilization – and simultaneously reminds us of Henry David Thoreau. First, there is the simple life in the woods (symbolically Homer is barefoot) as Thoreau did in 1845-47, second, there is the “Journal” Homer keeps (although Thoreau wrote quite different stuff in a quite different style). Further, there is close company and bodily contact with animals. Thoreau describes this as a natural part of his daily life: “It [a mouse] probably had never seen a man before; and it soon became quite familiar, and would run over my shoes and up my clothes” (Thoreau Walden 225). This short take satirically sums up the essence of Thoreau’s experiences – the retreat of man into nature and the collection of his thoughts in written form.
A viewer conscious of the scene’s implications, delights in observing Homer, the classic couch potato and exemplary proponent of “the mass of men” not only in a situation he cannot cope with; but one also gets pleasure from the Thoreauvian background – the desired “incongruities” that trigger irony. Homer in his ignorance is not aware that he re-enacts a scheme outlined by Thoreau long before, and therefore he cannot imagine its deeper significance. For Homer it is not a break with the limitations of life and an alternative to mass society but just another means of following up his notorious laziness. Thrown in such a situation, he will discover that his real desires can never be fulfilled and satisfied. The Homerian subject will permanently be lost in a world where he is left alone with himself, forced “to front the essential facts of life” (Thoreau Walden 90). For him, TV replaces the real reality and is actually his most appropriate method of escapism from a dull and drudging life as a “technical supervisor”. Homer will never be willing to follow Thoreau’s advice of a simplification of life and the reduction to its bare necessities as he cannot picture a world without civilization’s commodities.
The scene subverts its pre-text, the Thoreauvian unity of man with nature which is presented here as ultimately unobtainable; it got lost while man became completely enmeshed in modern life. Homer prefers to experience “nature” and therefore “life” via TV instead of living at this locus amoenus and he demonstrates his unwillingness and unpreparedness to start a new life, let alone a counter-economy. He proofs to be definitely the wrong character for a Thoreau-like experience.
The scene, of course, comments ironically on Thoreau too. The impossibility to follow in Thoreau’s steps is presented as a very short-lived dream that is right from the beginning doomed to fail. As such it is marked as non-real and illusionary, a pure romantic imagination of the mind that cannot be lived anymore. Opposed to the general Transcendentalist, and especially Thoreauvian optimism and utopian affirmation of life, The Simpsons display a certain degree of disillusion about modern existence.
Individualism on a TV-Program: Lisa Simpson and Thoreauvian Thought
Based on this inter-textual allusion to Thoreau’s life and work, one might conclude that in The Simpsons (and perhaps in all or most of contemporary popular culture), his role is rather marginal and limited. However, on another level the show echoes traces of his thought more thoroughly. Nearly all the protagonists demonstrate pragmatism and self-reliance, i.e. all family members are distinguished by their strong sense of non-conformism and their special brand of individualism.
Andreas Dörner differs in respect to The Simpsons between two forms of individualism, the utilitarian and the expressive mode. The first is the fulfilment of hedonistic desires and wishes without regard to the common weal or the needs of the own family. Utilitarianism is certainly not completely unknown to the Simpsons, yet they are never willing to sacrifice their common bond for egoistic, superficial reasons. A strong sense of collective and mutual responsibility always prevails. Expressive individualism on the other hand, gets defined as “the freedom of the individual to chose a path of his own, to formulate meaning even beyond social normalcy and to stage an eccentric lifestyle [and therefore it is] the most important criterion for a fulfilled existence” (Dörner 360, my translation) – it is self-actualization and the Simpson’s’ common way to act. They permanently are in need to defend their individualistic non-conformism against the pressures from the institutions of their native Springfield, like church, politics, law, school, medical care, or working place. They sometimes show their individualism in form of hedonism, anarchism, or egotism.
Bart Simpson is questioning the usefulness of an oppressive educational system while at the same time being a “fun-loving anarchist” (Matt Groening) who excels in unruly, hedonistic behavior, even fits of violence; but he is also a “self-actualizer” as for humanistic psychologists Abraham Maslow the actualisation of the self is the driving force behind human personality and “refers to man’s desire for fulfilment, namely to the tendency for him to become actually in what he is potentially: to become everything that one is capable of becoming” (Maslow 22). Bart’s desires are driven by his inherent, destructive need to rebel and by his anarchistic attitudes – although he may be the opposite of Maslow’s positive notions, because he does share the common personality characteristics of the self-actualizer obviously only in a negative way. Homer also reacts un-reflected to outward stimulation and in utter negation, while Marge retreats to the confines of her household and her family, except for some rare outbursts. Her world view is strictly limited to conventional moral, stemming from intuition and a Christian dogma without her being a Bible-basher. All of them, including the youngest family member, Maggie, who is apparently smart but prefers her pacifier, are not likely to be the right candidates for the investigation.
It is Lisa Simpson who best fits the category of “Thoreauvianism”. The eight-year old displays a non-conformist lifestyle, a strong sense of morality, vegetarianism, pacifism, an intense political commitment, and an environmental consciousness reminiscent of Thoreau’s. Lisa is portrayed as a highly reflective representative of alternative culture with intellectual capacities beyond her age. She is by far the most well-read family member, whose favourite hangout is the local library, and she possesses artistic inclinations that reach beyond her most prominent feature of playing jazz on the saxophone: she writes poetry and keeps a journal of her thoughts. Artistic expression is one way for her to cope with life’s deficiencies and the insensitive surrounding conditions in family, school, and society, and it is a retreat of spiritual fulfilment. She is familiar with philosophical positions, especially Eastern ones. Often she can be seen in meditative mood and yoga position, and lately Lisa, appalled from the official church, converted to Buddhism (“She of Little Faith”). Like Thoreau in his search for an inherent spiritual truth, she opposes the bigotry of a degenerate clergy and the way the church (re-) presents belief, but definitely not religion itself. For Thoreau all religions were the equal expression of a divine “oversoul”, manifested in nature and its experience –a process of tolerance that Lisa in this episode still has to learn. Despite these more superficial signs of a resemblance in character, Lisa excels in non-conformist, expressive individualism in regard to two Thoreauvian fields, civil disobedience and ecological awareness.
“Individualists-of-Tomorrow”: Lisa’s Civil Disobedience
Whereas the majority of American TV-series is overtly apolitical and smooth, The Simpsons turned to a politicalization of prime time and took up issues that the normal program tried to avoid. Although the everyday problems of the inhabitants of Springfield occupy the stage, many episodes possess a political subtext and some episodes evolve fully around a highly political issue. The biting satire attacks the local as well as the federal political system, the GOP as well as the Democratic Party. Corruption, mendacity, electoral fraud, the connection between financial and political power, (il)legal immigration and xenophobia, or gun control are all dealt with, and nearly all former Presidents have had their cameo, although not in person.3 Like most other institutions in the program, politicians are not trustworthy and politics fails permanently because of its inherent shortcomings. It is left to the individual’s initiative to act: “Wherever the institutions fail, individuals themselves have to assume the responsibility in order to redress grievances” (Dörner 359, my translation). This is exemplified by all family members – e.g. when Marge boycotts effectively the candidacy for governor by the greedy owner of the nuclear power plant, Mr. Burns (“Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish”), or when Homer becomes leader of the trade union (“Last Exit to Springfield”). But these acts are more or less involuntarily or unconscious or they are not motivated by moral dilemma and remain without much serious personal consequences (Marge’s motivation also originates in her political affiliation to Burn’s opponent). In Thoreau’s sense, a restoration of the order of things is definitely a purely moral decision taken on the primacy of the individual’s own conscience over all other possible instances:
Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. (Thoreau Resistance 65).
Although in a rational system, the priority of the conscience can never be an objectified decision, for Thoreau it is at any cost the only legitimate; he did not even consider its misuse. The same inconsistency is true for the obvious tension between “the law” and “the right”, with the latter, although a very subjective category to base decisions on, as the superior element that “if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law” (Thoreau Resistance 73). Thoreau firmly subscribed to the idea that the individual can change the system. The individual’s moral integrity remains the highest authority in life without regard to a functioning of society as a whole. For this moral integrity, the individual has to oppose the established system if conscience demands it, and has to accept severe inconveniences and disadvantages as Thoreau drastically stated: “If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself” (Thoreau Resistance 68). In any case, the individual has first to recognize, and then to act against social and political maladies with all consequences – Thoreau went to jail on command of his conviction (however short his prison term might have been).
In the episode “Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington”, with it’s plot line partially based on Frank Capra’s classic movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Lisa’s actions are supposedly based on the grass-root democratic ideals of the individual’s resistance to political injustice; she accepts even disadvantages on behalf of a conscientious decision. Lisa participated in a “Patriots-of-Tomorrow” essay contest and won a trip with her family to Washington D.C. for the final competition. There she accidentally witnesses the bribery of the overall corrupt Senator Bob Arnold (another “Benedict Arnold”-like traitor) by a greedy businessman with logging interests in the “Springfield National Forest”. Appalled and disappointed from a failing in democracy, she tears apart her prepared essay and gives instead of a jingoistic sycophancy an indictment against political corruption in front of an over-patriotic crowd. Doing this, she is well aware of loosing the contest and the prize-money, but she wins back democracy as the corrupt senator gets dismissed and arrested.
Lisa discovers that next to the glorious monuments of Washington lurks a real danger to democracy, that most other people got already used to as they comfortably accept taking payola for peccadillo. She stands up against the public’s indifference towards the political system that has already been deplored by Thoreau: “They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect. They will wait […] for others to remedy the evil […]” (Thoreau Resistance 69). The institution “politics” had failed, but as an individual Lisa helps in restoring it. Her decision to counteract is brought by an inner conflict and driven by an inner need. It is not only her horror about the corruption alone, but also the plan to destroy her hometown’s natural wealth. Although Lisa seeks help in her decision-making from the capital’s various monuments, she receives none (Lincoln is too busy and Jefferson too angered); she has to resolve her inner conflict on her own. Based on moral principles, she accepts that she will inevitably fail at the contest while at the same time acting according to her conscience keeps her moral integrity, which she prefers over short-lived fame and prize money.
Nevertheless, in contrast to Thoreau, Lisa is not “breaking the law” and likewise it did not need much sense of “respect for the right”, as her detection of a political scandal is according to both. But the emphasis here should be on the brave moral decision to stand up for principles and against the broad public. By this courageous act, “to do what is right”, an individual could save the well-being of the whole community. And indeed, Lisa’s bravery is the impulse for the state’s representatives to carry out their democratic obligations, so she can gladly notice “The system works!” – her trust in democracy and its institutions is restored. Thoreau on the other hand, had no lasting trust in the system but only in the people themselves and in the individual’s capacity to realize development and democracy: “The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way” (Thoreau Resistance 64). Thoreau is definitely more pessimistic about the powers that be than is Lisa, who at least momentarily is reconciled with her country.
In the episode “Lisa the Iconoclast” she has to recognize that the unconditional Thoreauvian appeal to the superior strength of the individual’s moral integrity must be put aside due to the imperative needs of the community. The ideals fail in view of the tremendous power that the constructions of socio-historical myths exercise over the collective imagination. Moral integrity has to work on a smaller scale because the public needs its myths as a unifying force, and this are “the most bitter episodes when collective hysteria triumphs over a little girl’s naïve honesty and each and every criticism gets drowned by an ur-American celebration of this triumph” (Gruteser 62, my translation).
Here, Lisa discovers the truth about Springfield’s founding father, Jebediah Springfield, which is concealed by a museum curator out of selfish reasons, and willingly believed by the citizens although the myth is right from its beginning only cheaply enacted. Lisa finds a document stating that the famed Jebediah was actually a bloodthirsty pirate by the name of Hans Sprungfeld, who once tried to assassinate George Washington. Laying bare and satirizing the vaguely concealed myths of America(n history) is one of the main strategies of the program. This goes often en passant: In this particular episode, according to a mock-documentary film presented at school, the city’s foundation happened because the early settlers “left Maryland after misinterpreting a passage in the Bible. Their destination, New Sodom”. In a larger sense, the satire aims definitely at the foundational myths of the USA – believed and beloved, but also blunder.
Against all odds Lisa tries to convince her fellow citizens of this forgery-turned-myth, but in vain. Only at the city’s central bicentennial parade the curator agrees to confirm her research into the dark past. But the moment Lisa sees the happy faces of her fellow-Springfieldians, her “iconoclasm” stops short and she decides not to destroy the myth as she recognizes it as the community’s unifying force. The myth’s object is only second in comparison to its message: “Le mythe ne se définit pas par l’objet de son message, mais par la façon dont il le profère: il y a des limites formelles au mythe, il n’y en a pas de substantielles” (Barthes 683). Jebediah and his deeds as objects are unimportant, the form they were earlier on in the episode presented in the educational movie is ridiculous and transparent, but the message of the myth is meaningful for the common interests of the polity. As Lisa discovers the meaning of the myth’s content, its form and origins loose importance for her; she does not continue to subvert the social conditions and as a consequence she further helps in the mystification – “c’est désamorcer la subversion aiguë des rapports civiques, en un mot c’est mystifier” (Barthes 629). If she was really up to an act of complete civil disobedience, she would have ultimately followed her conscience and made the historical hoax public – this time with dire consequences: The mayor has already ordered snipers on a nearby rooftop. But she keeps the central insight to herself without getting in a moral dilemma. Thus she can join the patriotic parade not in euphoric chauvinism but aware of the historical implications. Lisa renounces a change in the system but still keeps her individual moral integrity, because previously to the parade she already acted according to her conscience and tried to convince others of the results of her research, causing trouble for herself and her family. Her scepticism concerning commonly taught and accepted historical “truths” proofs once more her non-conformism and individualistic stance; nevertheless, her personal enthusiasm and her will to instruct others, gives way to the common interest at the right time. The episode demonstrates the importance of civil courage and moral uprightness, but not by all means as demanded by Thoreau. Lisa does what she thinks is right – her moral Thoreauvian imperative – but subdues individualism to the higher “law” of the community. The strict and merciless individualism of Thoreau gets rejected, utopian idealism stands versus reasonable realism and rationalism.
Tree-Hugging and Allergic Reactions: Lisa Simpson and Nature
For Thoreau the experience of nature served as a healing correlative to the lost unity between man and nature, a remedy for the restoration of the holistic self, and as an access to higher, transcendental truths. As Thoreau looked at the present “depressive state of mind” of his fellow Americans, he came to the “diagnosis of cultural malady” (Marx 247), namely that most people lived a life of “quiet desperation”, caused by man’s modern existence, cultivated by “civilization” and dominated by doubtful developments. There was a fast-paced quantity of technological and economic progress, but the progress of the quality of life itself remained slow-paced. Thoreau’s retreat to Walden pond to live in close contact with nature is not pure disgust with the oncoming of this development, nor a romantic separation from society or a nostalgic return to a pastoral ideal but an act of self-liberation based on Transcendentalist principles to close the gap between “civilization” and “wilderness”. The reform of the Self is the necessary step before any changes in society can take place; his literary output, Walden, is less a call for a reform of society at large but rather a vindication of a renewal of the Self that is only possible in a return to the gross necessaries of life. Thoreau outlines the ecology of inner life with nature as its revitalizing force. Only nature could serve as an unspoiled source for spiritual inspiration where the individual experienced its regenerative power through close contact with it, and so “Thoreau empties his mind of conventional wisdom and prepares to receive life through primary experience: epiphanies which reveal an eternal mythical present, dimensions of being hidden from ordinary consciousness” (Oelschlaeger 157). Thus, he was enabled for a completely new estimation of nature, as aesthetics and ethics were indissolubly bound together while the “epiphanies” were found in the close observation of particulars to restore the organic qualities of life; at the same time he could recognize and accept the “otherness” of nature.
Nature is not the mechanic-static “nature-as-a-machine” image of Western tradition, but an organic-dynamic “nature-as-an-organism” image, where the universe is regarded as a living entity – self-sufficient and self-contained. This led not only to an intense and powerful nature imagery in his writings, put to an often allegorical use of nature, but to deep, meditative insights and to analogies and even identification of the Self with Nature: “Sympathy with the fluttering alder and poplar leaves almost takes my breath; yet, like the lake, my serenity is rippled but not ruffled” (Thoreau Walden 129).
Yet Thoreau saw the harmful influence of the settlers who had already altered wilderness in their attempt to “cultivate” the landscape. But nature could also take on different forms, be it the threatening aspects of the climb on Mount Ktaadn (described in The Maine Woods), or the exaggerated over-identification of nature with human attributes (like in the ironic description of a Homeric ant-fight in Walden), or the idealized analogies between Native Americans and Nature (passim).
For the popular mind, however, there was the temptation to reduce Thoreau’s Walden-experience and its deeper implications to some basic elements. His critique of the dubious technological and scientific progress was believed to be an affirmation for every Luddite techno-criticism, disregarding Thoreau’s ambivalent position towards technology. The spiritual dimensions and the call for change in mental and social attitudes were all too easily ignored. While the original pond ecologically collapsed, Thoreau was turned into the exclusive promulgator of environmental protection, or solely into some weirdo living like a woodchuck.
For most of the Simpsons (and the citizens of Springfield) nature seems to possess no real value, except as an economic resource. An early episode (“Call of the Simpsons”) presents the family on a failed outing, stranded in the wilderness of a national park. Despite his claim to be an experienced woodsman, Homer demonstrates only that nature is strange to him. Accidentally identified as the legendary “Bigfoot”, he comes to know nature even as hostile; for him as the “estranged object” it is easier and more comfortable to experience nature via the TV. Marge and Lisa, however, manage to get along in the wilderness quite well (although it is characteristic for Marge in her civilization-determined sense of housewifery to place animals in order like on a shelf), and Maggie, in a fairy tale adaptation, survives wilderness with the help of three bears. Most other encounters of the family with nature and wilderness, however, are purely accidental or they happen in an already tamed environment with recreational and adventurous character, or, even worse, nature becomes a threatening and unpredictable presence (e.g. in the boy scout outing in “Boy Scoutz ‘N the Hood”). Wild nature only rarely becomes the scene of the action and almost never is the agens itself – man in The Simpson is estranged from it.
It is only Lisa who turns to nature as a revitalizing, inspiring force. The episode “Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington” sees her after several failed attempts to write her first essay amidst a romantic wilderness. It is nature, not abstract knowledge that is her driving inspiration:
When [Lisa] first attempts the patriotic essay, she tries dutifully to quote Ben Franklin or to extract inspiration from a diagram showing how a bill becomes a law. But [she] comes to derive her power from association with a kind of ‘natural’ national property whose value is in its noncirculation in a system of exploitation and profit: the public domain called Springfield National Park. ‘America, inspire me,’ she says to the park, and a bald eagle straight from the national seal alights in front of her. This collaboration of the national symbolic and nature enkindles Lisa, and the show provides a montage of such speeches by our ‘patriots of tomorrow’ in which herb speech takes top honors. (Berlant 402)
The national gets identified via the natural – but different from Thoreau, the personal and intimate experience of nature does not trigger a critical stanza or works as an emotional correlative; it is a confirmation of the “national symbolic” and a commission of nature imagery into the service of affirmative patriotic idealism, as Lisa’s resulting speech demonstrates:
Lisa: When America was born on that hot July day in 1776, the trees in Springfield forest were tiny saplings, trembling towards the sun, and as they were nourished by Mother Earth, so too did our fledgling nation find strength in the simple ideals of equality and justice. Who would have thought such mighty oaks or such a powerful nation could grow out of something so fragile, so pure. (“Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington”)
Only later, after being initiated into the filthy world of corruption, she turns from paean to jeremiad, accusing the system. Again she turns to nature imagery, this time however, to the dinginess of a swamp: “The city of Washington was built on a stagnant swamp some 200 years ago, and very little has changed […]” (“Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington”). It is her anger about the failure in the system itself, but also the fact that her hometown’s forest is the objective of the greedy lobbyist of the logging industry. Those in power show little consideration for natural wealth, out of greed the resources have to yield economic profit – nature has only a financial face value, for Berlant “signalling the realpolitik, the will-to-dominate-nature of the Reagan-Bush era” (Berlant 398-99). The satire aims at pitiless capitalism accompanied by destruction and exploitation of natural resources by any means. This is the very same materialistic ideology that has been attacked by Thoreau, when he states, that the people of the dawning industrial age live on nature but not with nature – neighboring Flints’ Pond is named after a farmer, “who thought only of its money value; whose presence perchance cursed all the shore; who exhausted the land around it, and would fain have exhausted the waters within it; […] – and would have drained and sold it for the mud at its bottom” (Thoreau Walden 196).
In “Lisa the Tree-Hugger”, Lisa’s volition to protect wilderness is probably best exemplified. This time her hometown’s redwood forest is endangered by the logging interest of a Texan businessman. Lisa joins a group of environmentalist and animal rights activists and decides to take up residence on top of a redwood tree to prevent it from being cut down (another instance of “civil disobedience” against socio-political and economic pressure). However, she fails because her yearning for home is stronger than her will to stay. In the night, her tree is struck by lightning and Lisa believed to be dead. The environmentalist group and the businessman (mis-)use her “memory” each for their own specific purposes until the affair is uncovered. Lisa’s concern for ecology and environmental protection, however, is not motivated by her deep sense for these issues alone but also by her crush on the teen environmentalist leader of the group – the reasons for protecting nature are not completely unselfish and they do not serve the higher ordeal of a spiritual restoration of man to his holistic existence as was the case with Thoreau. Even the environmentalist have their specific selfish reasons to act, in the case of their leader, it is obviously narcissism. The approach of these eco-radicals is criticised and satirised as egoistic and not very different from the Texan entrepreneur’s greedy endeavour. The environmentalists of Springfield adhere to “shallow ecology” opposed to “deep ecology”:
As distinct from shallow ecology, which seeks to improve and sustain an environment healthy for human endeavours, for instance by correcting inefficient land-use practices, saving wilderness areas, or preventing pollution, ‘deep ecology’ regards human beings as a not extraordinarily important element in a total environment that has in the past, and will in the future, flourish without the presence of humans. Deep ecologist desire the health of nature even if that means limiting, or doing away with, human activities and human beings […]. (Kroeber 311)
For Karl Kroeber, Thoreau is a deep ecologists (the quotation concerning Flints’ Pond supports this view), but these deeper insights remain secluded to the cartoon world. The Thoreauvian idea of the possibility of man’s genuine relation to nature gets dismantled as unobtainable idealism, hindered permanently by man’s genuine relation to egotism.
It is nevertheless important to see Lisa display once more her non-conformism as she has to stand up against the community and also her family. Her individualism encompasses not only the direct experience of nature to become enlightened but also the will to protect nature on her own. The positive values of nature and the need to save it outweigh every hardship.
The danger of Lisa’s all-too idealized view of nature gets dramatized in “You Only Move Twice”. There the family moves to Homer’s new employer, located in an idyllic spot somewhere on the West-Coast, where legend and tourism office have it that nature is still pure and unspoiled. Lisa enters the nearby forest happily singing, dancing, and greeting the animals, thereby personifying nature. The natural side of nature – one animal devouring the other – goes therefore unnoticed:
Lisa: to a nearby chipmunk Hello Mr. Chipmunk. You’re a northern reticulated chipmunk. Yes, you are. [pokes its nose] You are so reticulated. to an owl Hi, Mrs. Owl. You’re out kind of early. [walks off merrily] La-la-la, la-la … as soon as she’s out, the owl grabs the chipmunk. (“You Only Move Twice”)
Nature possesses elements she continuously tries to ignore because they do not fit into her ideology of an idealized nature as a “peaceable kingdom”. For Thoreau this was an aspect that definitely belonged to the untamed wilderness. Though he personifies animals, e.g. in the description of an ant-fight, he was able to acknowledge and affirm wilderness’ inherent and basic laws. Lisa is demonstrating the naïveté of an overall idealization of wilderness where cute animals live like in a zoo’s stroking area. Nature gets attributed with elements it does not possess. In the direct confrontation with nature she has to make further unpleasant experiences: she is allergic to pollen. Modern man (or woman) became extremely marred by civilization and exceedingly hypersensitive, so the individual‘s encounter with nature is doomed to fail – exemplary for the lost holistic relation of civilization with nature. Despite Lisa’s anaphylactic reaction, she still adheres to ecological principles and environmental protection as a component of social importance and a way of acting – even if the rest of her countrymen- and women do not recycle.
There are a few other fields where Thoreauvian ecological thought and The Simpsons overlap, so in their position against cruelty to animals, vegetarianism, or in the scepticism against techno-scientific progress. The episode “Marge vs. Monorail”, where the city decides to build a useless and dangerous new transportation system, could be seen as an appropriation of Thoreau’s statement about the railroad, “that a few are riding, but the rest are run over” (Thoreau Walden 53) – here nearly literally, when the train is about to destroy the city. The Simpsons show pessimistic discomfort with technology but nature as a correlative to society’s unease in a Thoreauvian sense is never involved.
It seems important to point to one last aspect of the Simpson-Thoreau connection, namely the basic assumption of Romanticism and Transcendentalism about the relation between “understanding” and “reason”. For Coleridge it was a clearly marked difference with understanding as only the basic category inferior to reason, the higher, more intuitive aspect. For Thoreau the concept was of more “fluid and dynamic” proportions as he “studied nature not only for its metaphorical potential and its spiritual symbolism but also from a scientific attitude of observation and experiment, hoping that way to attain a synthesis which was up to the standards of historical evolution and consciousness” (Zapf 96). Lisa in “You Only Move Twice”, approaches the chipmunk, determines the species and uses a similar “scientific” system as Thoreau did. This attitude is characteristic for her mental and intellectual capabilities, used as a means of resistance against the felt oppression from family and society in general: “Despite being confronted with the chaotic, absurd world around her, she persists in believing that reason can not only help her to understand that world but correct it” (Conrad 64), so all her virtues and most of her actions are based on ratio, not impulse. While the other city intellectuals when in power (“They Saved Lisa’s Brain”) show neither “understanding” nor “reason” and fail miserably, she is left as the only sensible one with the altruistic will to change society for better. Adherence to the Thoreauvian branch of intellectualism and reasoning is one important part of her personality. She is way beyond the mere understanding of facts but possesses the rational insight into the world’s correlations without becoming one of TV’s nerve-racking little wisenheimers like her peers in other programs.
By the very nature of the show, Lisa’s character possesses many other ambivalent facets that are in utter contrast to Thoreauvian thought – her liking for the show-in-the-show, the violent “Itchy and Scratchy” cartoons, or her conformity at school, especially in “The Secret War of Lisa Simpson” when she is fascinated and attracted by the rigour of a military academy. Of course there are many other aspects to her as she is not, and never was intended to be, a paradigm Thoreauvian character, but as she over the years developed into the show’s proponent of American alternative culture, it seemed only natural that she incorporates traces of the thought that coined so much the American tradition of dissent. As such she is singular in the whole show – and therefore, if we agree to see Springfield as America in nuce, also only a marginal and easily overlooked figure in its contemporary society.
The Simpsons itself clearly criticises the “American McDream” with its vain pursuit of economic happiness and the outgrowths of capitalism on the individual and the society – but at the same time it is part of merciless commercialisation. It attacks society’s malformations like chauvinism or jingoism and it comments with bitter satire on the complacent “mass of men”. Therefore it stands in the tradition of dissent to mainstream culture. This specific branch of dissent had one of its progenitors in Henry David Thoreau and Thoreauvian thought. Even if there has been up to now no verbatim reference to him and even if his influence on society at large may have diminished, traces of Thoreau’s critical heritage are for some parts still visible, even in a cartoon TV-program.
- My translations. For further and detailed discussions on the postmodern status of The Simpsons see: Henry (1994) 85-99, Mittell (2001) 15-28, and Ott (2003) 56-82.
All quotations and episode titles from The Simpsons can be found on the The Simpsons Archive web page: www.snpp.com.
- This passage gets identified by Chris Turner in his book-length study Planet Simpson as “_à la_ Thoreau“ (90). To my knowledge, this is the only clearly marked reference to Thoreau in all Simpsons-Studies.
- In a recent episode, British Prime Minister Tony Blair appeared as himself. The only American politician so far was former Vice-President Al Gore in an episode of Futurama, the follow-up cartoon to The Simpsons.
- Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Œuvre completes, Tome I: 1942-1965. Èric Marty (ed.). Paris: Edition du Seuil, 1993. 561-722.
- Berlant, Lauren. “The Theory of Infantile Citizenship.” Public Culture 5 (1993): 395-410.
- Conrad, Mark T. “Thus Spake Bart: On Nietzsche and the Virtues of Being Bad.” The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D’oh! of Homer. William Iwrin, Mark T. Conrad, and Aeon J. Skoble (eds.). Chicago: Open Court, 2001. 59-77.
- Diederichsen, Diedrich. “Die Simpsons der Gesellschaft.“ Subversion zur Prime-Time: Die Simpsons und die Mythen der Gesellschaft. Michael Gruteser, Thomas Klein, and Andreas Rauscher (eds.). Marburg: Schüren, 2nd. ed., 2002. 18-24.
- Dörner, Andreas. “The Simpsons: Der Republikanismus expressiver Individuen.” Politische Kultur und Medienunterhaltung: Zur Inszenierung politischer Identitäten in der amerikanischen Film- und Fernsehwelt. Andreas Dörner. Konstanz: UVK, 2000.
- Eco, Umberto. “Serialität im Universum der Kunst und der Massenmedien,” Im Labyrinth der Vernunft: Texte über Kunst und Zeichen. Michael Franz and Stefan Richter (eds.). Leipzig: Reclam, 1989. 301-24.
- Gruteser, Michael. “Family Ties.” Subversion zur Prime-Time: Die Simpsons und die Mythen der Gesellschaft. Michael Gruteser, Thomas Klein, and Andreas Rauscher (eds.). Marburg: Schüren, 2nd ed., 2002. 49-77.
- Henry, Matthew. “The Triumph of Popular Culture: Situation Comedy, Postmodernism, and The Simpsons,” Studies in Popular Culture 17:1 (1994 Oct.): 85-99.
- Irwin, William, and J. R. Lombardo. “The Simpsons and Allusion: ‘Worst Essay Ever’.” The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D’Oh! of Homer. William Irwin, Mark T. Conrad, and Aeon J. Skoble (eds.). Chicago: Open Court, 2001. 81-92.
- Kroeber, Karl. “Ecology and American Literature: Thoreau and Un-Thoreau”. American Literary History 9:2 (1997 Summer): 309-328.
- Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. London: Oxford UP, 1964.
- Maslow, Abraham. Motivation and Personality. New York: Harper & Row, 3rd ed., 1987.
- Mittell, Jason. “Cartoon Realism: Genre Mixing and the Cultural Life of The Simpsons”. The Velvet Light Trap 47 (2000 Spring): 15-28.
- Oelschlaeger, Max. The Idea of Wilderness: From Prehistory to the Age of Ecology. New Haven: Yale UP, 1991.
- Ott, Brian L. “’I’m Bart Simpson, Who the Hell Are You?’ A Study in Postmodern Identity (Re)Construction.” The Journal of Popular Culture 37:1 (2003) 56-82.
- The Simpsons Archive. www.snpp.com.
- Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. J. Lyndon Shanley (ed.). Princeton: Princeton UP, 1971.
- Thoreau, Henry David. “Resistance to Civil Government”. The Writings of Henry David Thoreau. Reform Papers. Wendell Glick (ed.). Princeton: Princeton UP, 1973. 63-90.
- Turner, Chris. Planet Simpson: How a Cartoon Masterpiece Documented an Era and Defined a Generation. London: Ebury Press, 2005.
- Zapf, Hubert. “English Romanticism and American Transcendentalism: An Intercultural Comparison.” Romantic Continuities: Papers Delivered at the Symposium of the ‘Gesellschaft für englische Romantik’ Held at the Catholic University of Eichstätt. Günther Blaicher and Michael Gassenmeier (eds.). Essen: Blaue Eule, 1992. 86-104.
Originally published by Americana E-Journal of American Studies in Hungary IV:2 (2008) under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license.